Planning resilient water management systems using systems engineering principles


Planning resilient water management systems using systems engineering principles

Planning resilient water management systems using systems engineering principles

Planning resilient water management systems using systems engineering principles.

Based on an interview with Dr Ana Mijic, Associate Professor and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering 

In relation to water management, the question of how we go from where we are right now,  to the type of systems we are going to want within 50 to 100 years’ time is a complex one. 

It is a challenge in which Dr Ana Mijic,  is making recognised headway by applying systems engineering and integration principles to her research. Ana specialises in civil and water engineering, she did a MSc in Hydrology for Water Resources Management and a PhD in Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial and in 2013 received a lectureship which focused on Urban Water Management. Ana says, “With time I realised that you cannot just look at cities in isolation, and so now a big part of my work is to look not just at cities, but at how relationships and interdependencies across much broader catchment areas play a role. This is where my all the interest in systems engineering came about.”

“Systems engineering is a much more structured way of assessing complex challenges and this is where the whole inspiration came from to start thinking about the systems approach to water management. It is an interesting combination, you have the physical part of the system which is the infrastructure, you have another physical part of the system that is natural, and then you have the influence of people that use and operate the system. The combination of these three elements will define what is going to happen now and in the future.” Ana explained.

Water chart

Water management is fundamentally a socio-economic problem, it’s a governance problem and it’s an economic problem. At this point what is really missing is for people to agree, to strengthen regulation, and to find economic incentives for sustainable investment by the private sector. Taking a more holistic approach to investment in water management will be more expensive, but there is a clear need to change the way we assess and measure the impact of localised interventions, and the value realised as a result of their implementation.

It is the goal of enabling better analysis and decision making that fuels Ana’s passion for her research and the models that she is developing. Her challenge is to ensure the models that are being designed are able to deliver reliable results and communicate challenges of sustainable development.

“The water system is fully connected so the basic unit we are using is a catchment, the scale at which the water balance needs to be closed.” she explained. “So what happens upstream with agriculture for example, is going to have an affect downstream, and what happens downstream, food consumption in cities for example, will have an indirect impact on pollution. All the evidence in the UK shows that water quality is quite a big problem, and water companies tend to undertake local interventions, upgrading processes in waste water treatment plants for example. However because problem analysis and the identification of solutions are focused at the local level, the potential for resolving problems by introducing interventions and changes in operations elsewhere across the network is not fully realised.”

To reflect these challenges Ana is currently working on three models looking at different scales; the catchment scale, the city scale, and the development scale. The catchment scale model is the largest one. It is very generic and if we talk about that as a product it is at the earliest stage of development and testing. However it has a lot of potential and would serve the interests of government departments such as DEFRA and the Environment Agency. The scale of the model will support activities around improvements in water quality standards, support engagements with planning authorities etc, help resolve questions relating to how much you can urbanise or how best to expand the agricultural sector in particular geographic regions.

At the city scale Ana is primarily looking at the city’s water infrastructure with the aim of supporting the development of more effective and integrated Water Resource Management Plans (WRMP) and Drainage and Waste Water Management Plans (DWMP). In accordance with the Water Industry Act 1991 water companies have had to publish a WRMP updated every five years. The DWMP is a much newer framework and water companies are required to publish a DWMP for the first time in the summer of 2022 to support their business plans for the 2024 price review. As it is recognised by UK water companies that the inter-relationships and interactions between different elements of the water system is going to have a significant effect on the performance of that system, there is an increased interest in ensuring that the latest thinking and models are used in the preparation of the WRMP and DWRP. Ana is currently working with a major UK water company to model how an integrated approach might be achieved.

“If we are talking about improving systems engineering and integration, then these two water infrastructure planning processes should be coordinated. Solutions we are talking about on the wastewater management side should influence decisions on the abstraction side, which in turn will have significant implications for the environment for example.” Ana said.

Ana and her team have developed the first version of this model that links the water system infrastructure, the natural environment and the human element of decision-making as part of the process. “It gives us a first indication of how they (the water company) can align their WRMP and DWRP plans, and in particular allows us to explore the impact of interventions on both water supply and wastewater sides within the same modelling framework so you can see the trade-offs and co-benefits in decisions. It’s very exciting!”

There is huge interest at policy level with the cabinet office and different government departments recognising the importance of addressing systems level challenges. The question is whether we can collectively address the challenges facing us. So questions about how we can make all of this sustainable is what Ana thinks about every day, in her work and home life. “I have three kids, you know, what their life will look like in the future and how much we all need to change the way we live, our behaviour and our priorities is a really important question for me.” “Equally important are the people that make the crucial decisions about investments and infrastructure development. It’s a huge responsibility and governments globally need to stop making decisions around the next election but to steer growth towards more sustainable long-term planning.”

Ana believes that by improving transparency and understanding in relation to the way water management systems behave and are influenced, we can highlight to decision makers their role within the system and get them to change some of their thinking and decisions. “If our work can be used to influence policy and long term planning from a government or water company perspective that would make both an engineer and the researcher in me extremely happy!”


James McGilvray

James McGilvray
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

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